By Brian Paglia
One thing Chris Jones learned from his old high school basketball coach was to take advantage of the holiday tournament season. That was the time, Jones learned, to expose your team to a diverse group of opponents that would reveal what flaws needed refining before the second half of the season began.
"I learned from my high school coach that during the holidays you like to take your team out and play against different opponents," Jones said, "to try to measure where you are and work out the kinks before you really get into region schedule."
The Bulldogs played in two holiday tournaments -- one in Albany, the other in their home gym for the Atlanta vs. Memphis Roundball Classic. Against teams filled with Division I talent and state rankings, Mt. Zion held its own.
Its kinks were exposed. Would the Bulldogs be able to refine them?
Since those tournaments, Mt. Zion (11-7, 6-4 in Region 4-AAAA) has shown evidence its kinks are thoroughly polished and gone.
The Bulldogs haven't lost in 2010, winning five straight games going into tonight's game against another hot Region 4-AAAA team in Dutchtown (7-8, 4-5). They broke a seven game losing streak to Jonesboro that spanned five seasons. This past Saturday, the Bulldogs defeated Stockbridge, a region favorite, convincingly, 84-66.
Winning streaks used to be something Mt. Zion couldn't maintain. That may be changing.
"Any time you win consecutively, over and over and over, it breeds confidence," Jones said. "Our problem in the past has been we haven't been consistent enough to win games back to back to back. That's been our problem overall at Mt. Zion.
"I think these guys have just learned to enjoy playing with each other, really having fun for what the game is about ... and just having an overall experience of being in a situation where you know how to make winning decisions. They're learning how to make those winning decisions."
Jones returned a group of eight juniors and seven seniors this season, led by point guard Stephen Wilson. Much of that group went 9-15 last season and lost its last five games. Much of that group won just seven games in 2007-08 and five games the season before that.
Mt. Zion has averaged just six wins during Jones' first four seasons as head coach, but he identified this group of juniors and seniors as special when he saw them play in middle school.
"This is the group that when they came from the middle school, I said, 'I think this is the group that could so something,'" Jones said. "But when you inherit other people's players, you've got to do what you've got to do."
Now after years of seasoning, Jones thinks this group could be the ones to end Mt. Zion's eight-year drought from the state tournament.
"This group has the potential to get there," Jones said. "It's up to them whether or not they're going to do it."